Zooming in on a Tiny Parasite
The malaria parasite is an expert when it comes to destroying red blood cells.
When a human is bitten by an infected mosquito, the parasite enters the bloodstream and travels to the liver, where it multiplies before it’s released back into a patient’s bloodstream and begins its quick work of annihilating red blood cells from the inside out.
According to the World Health Organization, there were more than 229 million cases of malaria across the globe in 2019, and more than 400,000 people died from the disease.
It’s a significant amount of destruction for a parasite that measures less than one millionth of a meter.
Although malaria is exceedingly common, it’s not the easiest disease to diagnose. When a doctor suspects that a patient has malaria, they’ll typically take a blood sample to track down the tiny parasite with a microscope.
Although visual examination is considered the gold standard to confirm a diagnosis, signs of the malaria parasite are easy to miss––both trained physicians and current computer algorithms have a tough time at accurate identification. Complicating matters, high-resolution microscopes only allow clinicians to examine a few dozen cells at a time, and they’ll often need to examine a few thousand cells before they find any sign of the parasite, which can take tens of minutes per slide.
But Roarke Horstmeyer, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University, aims to make this process faster and more accurate through the creation of new optical tools and image post-processing methods.
Horstmeyer runs the Computational Optics Lab at Duke, where his students develop new microscopes, cameras and computer algorithms for biomedical applications. According to Horstmeyer, it’s challenging to clearly capture biological events, as properties like image resolution, field-of-view and video frame rates of current optical tools are still surprisingly limited.
“These limits affect areas across medicine, from the pathologist who cannot quickly measure an infection in blood cells to neuroscientists who can only use light to monitor neural activity along the top surface of the brain,” he says. “Our lab tries to address these shortcomings by coming up with new optical approaches that can give us a new way to see and study biological systems, as well as new algorithms that can assist us with these challenging tasks.”